A New York flagship by Annabelle Selldorf sets the sexy-preppy Abercrombie & Fitch image to a throbbing beat
Raul Barreneche -- Interior Design, 4/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
On a frigid winter morning, shoppers strolling the icy sidewalks of New York are all but hidden from view behind layers of scarves and hats. But inside Abercrombie & Fitch, it might as well be summer. Fresh-faced hunks are working the registers—wearing flip-flops, cargo shorts, and short-sleeve polo shirts that reveal muscled biceps. Outside the store, the sunshine is almost blinding. Inside, the lights are turned down low, except for discreet spotlights on the distressed jeans and pre-weathered T-shirts in glass display cases. And the thumping dance music is cranked up to nightclub level.
Aside from the clothes, your eyes are drawn to a four-story mural in a style best described as WPA meets Thomas Eakins meets Chariots of Fire: Muscular, rosy-cheeked, practically undressed young men are rowing, wrestling, and climbing ropes with heroic resoluteness. The store is like an A&F photo shoot come to life—and set to a danceable sound track.
All this is the handiwork of architect Annabelle Selldorf, a Gluckman Mayner Architects alumna known more for her serene, light-filled New York art spaces—the Barbara Gladstone and David Zwirner galleries, the celebrated Neue Galerie—than for trendy, boisterous shop interiors. Of course, before A&F CEO Michael Jeffries hired Selldorf Architects, the firm did have a few retail projects under its belt: a full floor at nearby Barneys New York, the Rubin Chapelle clothing store in the meatpacking district, and Manhattan and Tokyo boutiques for MZ Wallace handbags.
Selldorf's design for A&F breaks with a number of retail standards, starting with the exterior. Instead of large windows on Fifth Avenue, the glass on street level and the ribbon windows of the three floors above are screened with oversize oak louvers. "That helped make the new store part of the building's architecture, rather than giving it a separate identity," Selldorf explains. (Dating to the 1940's, the modernist structure had housed a haberdashery originally and a Fendi boutique more recently.) "The louvers create mystery," she continues. They also contribute to the dark mood inside.
The store covers 30,000 square feet on four levels, including a basement. About 60 percent of the space is given over to women's clothing, 40 percent to men's. But Selldorf doesn't distinguish between the sexes. Every section has the same rich materials palette: water-picked granite floor tile, oak paneling, and custom racks of blackened steel.
At the store's very heart—anchored on one side by the four-story paean to male athleticism—a staircase glows with LED-lit glass-tiled treads. The balustrades resemble woven leather but are actually made of interlaced strips of blackened steel. Right next to the staircase and peppered throughout, small lounges group clubby leather-covered sofas and armchairs, bronze floor lamps, and low tables topped by the same glass tiles used for the stair treads. Selldorf enjoys the idea of these seating areas making the store seem more like a public space.
She created a number of smaller environments within the huge space. Cash registers, for instance, are sequestered off the sales floors in alcoves. So ringing up purchases feels "like an old-fashioned transaction," she says.
Like A&F itself—which sells clothes along with images of youthful, wholesome beauty tinged with sexuality—Selldorf's interior presents a few contradictions. Dark wood and stone surfaces and handsomely crafted vitrines suggest an old-fashioned emporium, but the clothes are targeted at mass-market teenagers who tend to appreciate loud music and hunky salesmen over craftsmanship. In addition, despite the traditional architecture and artwork playing up A&F's 114-year history, there's still a clean modernity at work.
"It's different from most A&F stores. But not so different that there's no continuity," offers Selldorf, who has another flagship under construction in Los Angeles, plus a London store on the drawing board. Different locations "require different attitudes," she says, but they'll still feel similar. "The identity comes from the clothes." And from the provocative ads that make A&F one of the most recognizable clothing labels in America.